A Dental Dr. Doolittle
At her periodontics practice in Atlanta, Laura Braswell ’ 82 (DDS) treats
more than her fair share of vampires and
zombies — or, at least, the actors who
play them on television. (AMC’s The
Walking Dead and the CW’s Vampire Diaries
both film in the area.) “The teeth of the
undead,” she calls them.
But it’s the celebrities Braswell sees on
her days off who really give her a thrill.
They’re bigger. Hairier. Toothier. And even
the staff dentist
for Zoo Atlanta
and the Georgia Aquarium, where she has
tended the teeth of every beast imaginable
for the past 30 years, from giant pandas to
“It’s what I call my expensive hobby,” said
Braswell, who volunteers her services not
only at the zoo and the aquarium, but also
with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey
Circus, Sea World and Gorilla Haven, a local
“retirement home” for male gorillas.
The Hendersonville native became
familiar with animal dentistry while
teaching and completing a periodontics
residency at Emory University. She
conducted research trials at Emory’s Yerkes
National Primate Research Center and
soon became the dentist for apes at the
facility. When the primates later moved
to the zoo, she followed them, working
with staff veterinarians to keep all the
zoo animals’ teeth healthy — even as she
continued to build a private practice for
Juggling the needs of people and
animals comes naturally to Braswell, who
was “always the kid who brought home
injured creatures.” Not long ago, she saved a
100-year-old snapping turtle “the size of a
washtub” that had been struck by a vehicle,
coaxing it to grab a hula hoop in its mouth
so she could pull it safely off the road.
“My kids joke that I’m like McGyver,”
she said. “I’m ready for anything.”
She’s had to be. No books exist on
exotic animal dentistry and no specialized
dental materials are available, so Braswell is
largely self-taught and wholly improvising.
Working on a small monkey might call for
the same drill she would use for a human;
working on an elephant, however, means
hauling out the Black & Decker. The usual
matrix band placed over a tooth to form
a filling isn’t large enough for gorillas,
so Braswell might cut a soda can to use
instead. She’s employed pipe cleaners in
root canals on gorillas and copier toner for
color on a beak repair.
Although most of Braswell’s procedures
on animals are completed with anesthesia
(and under the supervision of the staff
veterinarian), that wasn’t always the case.
Before it was deemed too unsafe to
work inside the mouth of a conscious,
15,000-pound animal, Braswell devoted her
Sundays to treating wide-awake elephants.
If that was Braswell’s most heroic deed,
then this was her most gratifying: the day
she removed a dentigerous cyst, which
forms around the crown of an unerupted
tooth, from a female drill monkey — one
of the most endangered animals on the
planet. The cyst showed signs of early
carcinoma, but with Braswell’s help, the drill
went on to have at least a half dozen babies.
“It helped keep the species going,” she
“You learn to figure out what’s
said, “and that was a really great thing.”
Braswell, who hopes to return to
academia when she retires from private
practice and write a book on exotic animal
dentistry, also is involved in research trials
with laser techniques to reduce traditional
periodontal surgeries in people. Her work
with animals has helped her become a
better diagnostician with her human
patients, she says.
going on even when they can’t tell you
themselves,” she said.
And when it comes to picking her
favorite type of beast to have as a patient,
Braswell says that animals and people —
zombie or otherwise — are neck-and-neck.
“Animals don’t have any money,”
Braswell said with a laugh, “and they
don’t always smell good. But they don’t
— Beth McNichol ’ 95
Laura Braswell ’ 82 (DDS) sutures a western lowland gorilla’s gums after a tooth extraction at Zoo At-
lanta. “It’s important to use lots of small buried sutures, as they often try to pick them out,” she said.
dentist’s drill is a
Black & Decker